Global Vision, May 13th, Owen Paterson
The Agriculture Bill returns to Parliament today and is an important step in the UK’s departure from the EU. It is designed to set out the route to a new, more tailored system of agricultural support, as well as providing the basis for UK farmers to embrace the latest technology.
The Government has been unambiguous that this approach goes hand in hand with expanding global free trade. As the 2019 Conservative Manifesto correctly summarised: “Free trade has been proven time and again to be the best way to increase exports, cut prices for consumers, increase investment and create jobs right here in the UK.” British farmers already depend upon international trade, and we must recognise the enormous opportunities which expanded markets represent. With the freedom to use cutting-edge techniques, British farmers can produce more food at world prices. They can compete at home and abroad.
Too often, however, the debate about trade in agriculture is parsed only in terms of “protecting” domestic farmers from international competition which they are falsely assumed to be incapable of withstanding. The Agriculture Bill debate has proven no different, with the tabling of a number of amendments calling for the UK to ban all agricultural products from countries that are “below the UK’s standards”.
Such arguments might sound intuitively appealing, which is why they need careful unpicking. The first point is that it is already the case that products imported into the UK have to meet the UK’s food safety standards. The Department for International Trade has been unequivocal that, without exception, these standards will not be adjusted to secure a trade deal. This is eminently sensible.
The tabled amendments, however, go much further than that. They call for a blanket ban on agricultural imports unless they are produced to standards that are “as high as, or higher than” the UK’s on “animal welfare” and “protection of the environment”.
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